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Long queues are seen at a regional screening centre in Singapore where would-be travellers can undergo coronavirus testing. Photo: Handout

Frustrated Chinese travellers in Singapore show limits of border reopenings as Covid-19 rages on

  • China recently implemented a new rule requiring travellers from at least 80 countries to obtain a negative Covid-19 test five days before departure
  • The change caused confusion in Singapore, while in Japan, a Chinese national was turned away as her PCR test was not done via a nasal swab
When he finally got a day off on Wednesday and had time to visit the Chinese embassy in central Singapore from his home in Kovan, on the northeastern side of the island, Chinese national Chen Ming only wanted to know one thing: how could he get tested for the coronavirus?
He told This Week in Asia that he had tickets to fly to Guangzhou on September 6 with low-cost carrier Scoot, but had yet to receive any information about where he could get tested for Covid-19 – a new requirement for travellers bound for China from the city state that is set to go into effect from Friday.

After two years in Singapore’s food and beverage industry, Chen – not his real name – said he was ready to return to his home country, but the new negative test result prerequisite for travelling was making him anxious.

Singapore, with more than 56,000 cases though the bulk of patients have recovered, generally offers tests only to those showing symptoms. Late on Wednesday, it announced it would make tests available between Friday and next Monday to travellers to China, to align with the new requirements.

Chen is not alone. As countries around the region ease open their borders in a bid to revive the ailing aviation industry, many would-be travellers have been left feeling confused and angry by what sometimes seem like daily rule changes by governments seeking to prevent imported infections that could trigger mass local outbreaks and force fresh lockdowns.
A health worker administers a Covid-19 nasal swab test. One source of confusion has been the type of swab test that different governments require. Photo: Reuters
China’s new requirement for travellers from Singapore to have tested negative for Covid-19 in the five days before they are set to depart was only announced last Friday, and reportedly came into effect after dozens of inbound passengers from the city state had tested positive on arrival. The Chinese embassy in Singapore said the new rule applies to at least 80 other countries. Earlier this month, the Chinese embassy in Manila said travellers would need to submit proof they did not have Covid-19 before boarding flights to China.
There has also been confusion in Japan, where the government has said it will only accept negative results from a nasal swab test, while other countries such as China conduct deep throat swab tests. One 25-year-old Chinese student who had undergone a test in Dalian that showed her to be free of the virus and was again given the all-clear in a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test of her saliva after arriving at Narita on August 11 was nonetheless sent back to China, the Mainichi newspaper reported.

The woman, who has not been named, told the newspaper that she was called into an office at the airport and given a slip of paper bearing the message, “You will be sent back to your country of departure”.

Health authorities said they could not accept the results of the Chinese test, even though a similar test in Japan had come back negative. The woman, who was returning to a language school in Tokyo in preparation for sitting entrance exams for a graduate school programme that begins in late September, was quarantined for two nights at the airport before flying back to Dalian. The additional flight and quarantine expenses cost her more than US$1,350, she said, and she now has to spend another two weeks in quarantine in China.

Chinese travellers hit by Singapore flight suspensions and new testing rules

“I have used up part of my savings set aside for tuition and I don’t have time to prepare for the university exams,” the woman told the Mainichi. “I might not return to Japan again.”

An official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the policy on coronavirus tests for anyone arriving in the country, but declined to comment on individual cases or provide the number of people who have been turned back at points of entry into Japan.

Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor of infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, said Japan’s policy was based on the fact that “there is evidence that the virus is staying in the mouth and upper part of the throat, but is harder to detect in the lower throat”, adding that Tokyo follows guidelines laid out by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

For Chen, who is in his 30s, his Wednesday visit to the Chinese embassy in Singapore was of little help. There were no consular services available – a sign having been put up saying the section was only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays – and a member of embassy staff referred him to an advisory issued a day earlier, which said that anyone travelling to China for work or business should apply for a coronavirus test through Singapore’s trade ministry. The same statement, which Chen said was only in English, had also been issued by Singapore’s health ministry, adding that those with a work pass should apply via the manpower ministry.

People wearing face masks pictured in the financial business district of Singapore earlier this month. Photo: AFP

Flustered and with no assurances that he would be able to board his flight, the tickets for which cost more than S$1,000 (US$731), Chen flagged down a taxi and headed home.

Others in the city state were also caught off guard by Beijing’s rule change.

A post on popular Chinese microblogging website Weibo on Sunday highlighting the issue was viewed more than 15,000 times and received some 50 comments. One user said he had booked a flight out on August 30 and still did not know where he could get tested, while another suggested heading to the private Raffles Hospital.

On Tuesday, long queues formed outside the Chinese embassy as future travellers suddenly unsure about the arrangements they had made arrived en masse looking for answers. A fresh advisory was soon issued, helping to quiet some of the anxiety, while several airlines also reached out to their customers who were set to fly in the upcoming days.


Tracking the massive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the world’s airline industry in early 2020

Tracking the massive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the world’s airline industry in early 2020

Scoot, for example, sent out an email at about 2pm on Tuesday telling those with tickets for a flight on Sunday to Guangzhou that they could get tested at a regional screening centre in the western part of Singapore for the cost of S$186 (US$136).

The joint government ministry statement on Wednesday night confirmed the price of the test and said travellers to China could get tested at a dedicated screening centre, where they would be informed of their results within 48 hours. They would be allowed to embark on their journeys if the test was negative.

Shanghai native Yin, who asked only to be identified by her surname and went to the centre for her nucleic acid test on Wednesday morning, said she had been reduced to tears after learning about the new travel requirements, which could have upended her plans to return to her hometown at the end of the month.

“How was I going to find a clinic that allows me to get tested within a week? I cried after I called several hospitals and they did not pick up my calls,” said the 24-year-old Nanyang Technological University graduate.

While Yin’s problem has now been sorted, others travelling to different countries remain confused. Sri Lanka, for example, has also imposed a negative test result travel requirement, leading to a number of bewildered posts requesting advice in various travellers’ Facebook groups

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In response, some have shared the telephone numbers of general practitioners’ clinics and suggested simply turning up at hospitals and demanding a test – prompting some public hospitals in Singapore to put up notices telling prospective patients that they do not offer coronavirus testing for the general public.

IHH Healthcare, which operates four private hospitals in Singapore as well as a number of general practitioners’ clinics, said that two of its clinics were able to administer Covid-19 tests, but only for approved cases such as those who have a letter of approval from the government or who can travel under reciprocal “green lane” agreements meant for business and official travel. The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority’s website does list clinics where travellers under such arrangements can get pre-departure Covid-19 tests.
Singapore has only made these agreements with China, Malaysia and Japan so far. It also recently permitted general travel – including for leisure – to New Zealand and Brunei, though stressed that travellers would be subject to any measures implemented by those countries’ governments.

The Wednesday night government statement said more than 700 passengers had been tested at the screening centre since Tuesday. Passengers scheduled to travel to China from September 1 must approach either the trade, health or manpower ministries for assistance with arranging pre-departure tests.

Additional reporting by Julian Ryall and Bloomberg

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Travellers tested by changing entry rules